The Julia Donaldson books are firm favourites at bedtime for my 3 year old son Daniel, so I was excited to hear about the stage version of Room on the Broom a year or so ago. A couple of my ‘mum’ friends took their daughters to see the show when they were just 2 years old, but I didn’t think my little boy was quite ready at that stage. This year however (and after taking him to an amateur dramatic pantomime at Christmas which he loved) I decided it was time for his first foray into professional theatre.
All photographs © Helen Warner
I had very little idea of what to expect, and confess to being slightly confused when the performance seemed to start somewhat ‘organically’ with all the house lights still on and the action on stage bearing little resemblance to the start of the book. After a few minutes the house lights were dimmed slowly and it became slightly easier to concentrate on the performance and get my little one to focus on the stage instead of all the other interesting sights and sounds of the auditorium on your first ever visit to a theatre. I am assuming that this slightly inauspicious start is as a result of years of experience at gently easing little ones into the performance, so actually I was grateful that my little one hardly noticed the encroaching darkness, even if we couldn’t hear the dialogue to begin with.
The simple set was very atmospheric, and the portrayal of the witch reminded me of Miranda Hart’s TV character – bumbling and clumsy but funny and loveable at the same time – perfect for little ones. To be honest I can’t really get to the bottom of whether or not my little boy understood that actress in stripes was playing the cat, especially given that the other animals were puppets, but he didn’t question who she was. He was transfixed for the first 20 minutes or so, but I have to admit that sitting where we were in the Circle, there were lots of distractions from an inevitably noisier than average audience, and so it was sometimes difficult to follow the additional dialogue on top of the story he already knows. This didn’t help in holding his attention, but fortunately the interspersed songs and regular introduction of a new character helped him re-focus.
I have two observations about all the additional dialogue: from a production point of view, it is necessary for a number reasons – firstly the story itself is too short for a production without some additions, secondly I have no doubt it added to the appeal for slightly older children and kept the adults amused, making the theatre production appeal to a wider age range than the book in all probability. However, for very young children I think it was perhaps harder to follow, and potentially detracted from the story itself a little, since at times even I wanted them to get on with the next bit of the story, and my 3 year old definitely lost concentration in the middle.
The puppets were fantastic – the dog was particularly effective, with his shaggy coat emphasising the frenetic movement and constant tail wagging of a dog that is as ‘keen as can be’, but I am reliably informed by my son that ‘the frog was the best’, with his wide grin and long stretchy legs. For those parents with concerns about littles ones being scared – I would reassure you that despite the slightly fearsome roar before he came into view, the dragon turned out to be far less intimidating than my son imagined, and he soon climbed off my knee and back into his own chair, listening to the dragon’s catchy tune about wanting ‘witch with chips’ because he tired of eating ‘kids on sticks’…I still find myself singing this some days later. My son was a bit more worried by the ‘mud monster’, but since the actors were careful to ensure that the friendly puppet characters could be seen under the brown cover, I think this just proved that he’d totally bought into the story and characters on stage.
When the production ended I was slightly surprised that my son’s instant feedback was ‘that was good Mummy’, purely because he had lost concentration for a while during the performance, and I had worried that he was getting bored, but he’d refocussed on the stage when the dragon came on, and most certainly enjoyed his first theatre experience.
If a parent was to ask my advice about taking their child to see this production, I’d say this; don’t be in a hurry to take your child before they are able to concentrate for a reasonable length of time, the stage production would probably appeal to older children than the book does, so there is plenty of time. Book your seats carefully – the closer to the front, the fewer distractions there are likely to be from other children and the general hubbub of the audience, but then again if you have concerns that they may be scared – distance from the stage can be reassuring – judge it according to your own child. There is something in it for everyone; the little ad libs and references to current events were amusing for the grown-ups, and I overheard plenty of parents and older children around me make reference to having seen it before, so they clearly felt it worth coming back to year on year. I for one, will certainly be looking at availability for the Gruffalo later in the year after seeing this.
The Gruffalo (based on the book by the same author as Room on the Broom) is on at the New Theatre, Cardiff from Thursday 31 August – Sunday 3 September 2017. Tickets from £9.50.